Sunday, April 21, 2013

Ella Minnow Pea

Ella Minnow Pea: a progressively lipogrammatic epistolary fable by Mark Dunn is both disturbing and delightful. I heard about it because a friend had chosen it for her book club and was telling me all about it. It's a dystopian novel about words and language. That sounded like something I'd like to read.

The novel takes place on the fictional island of Nollop, an independent nation off the coast of South Carolina. It was home to Nevin Nollop, the creator of the pangram (a sentence that uses all the letters of the alphabet),  "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog." The island's ruling council has decided that no one else could have come up with such a sentence and has deified Mr. Nollop. Things begin to go wrong when the memorial to Nollop begins to crumble. The memorial consists of a statue of Nollop and the famous pangram written out letter-by-letter on individual tiles affixed to the base of the statue. When tiles begin falling, first a "z" then a "q" and so forth, the islands increasingly crazy rulers decide it is a sign from the almighty Nollop that they should no longer use these letters in speech or writing. As each letter falls, it becomes illegal to use it. The punishments for infractions can be quite terrible including flogging, banishment, and possibly even death.

The novel is disturbing not only because of something so harmless becoming a crime punished in such a terrible way, but also because of the control of a totalitarian government over the lives of its people. Most disturbing was the woman who turned in her neighbor, a school teacher, for her accidental slip ups. This reminds me of the Nazis. How often do we look back on that time period and think we would not have participated in those crimes. Back then, in the name of being a good citizen or protecting themselves or whatever, otherwise decent people turned in their Jewish neighbors. This neighbor did a terrible thing, and believed she was doing what was just and right.

The novel is delightful because of its clever and creative use of language. The novel is written in letters (the island inhabitants lost the use of their phones in the last hurricane), and being separated from the United States, they speak in a more formal style than their neighbors on the mainland. As letters disappear from the alphabet, they disappear from the novel. The archaic vocabulary and newly-coined words make for a fun read.

This is a fairly short and easy read while being a highly enjoyable cautionary tale. Well worth the time, and it makes me want to read more by Mark Dunn.

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